Nicola Rescigno: Co-founder of Dallas Opera

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The Independent Online

The conductor Nicola Rescigno is best remembered as co-founder of the Dallas Opera and as its artistic director for 33 years. He was also music director and, for a few years, general manager as well. His preference was for Italian opera, so Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini made up a large part of the repertory at Dallas; he also liked French opera, so Bizet and Massenet figured on the bill too. Rescigno was known as a "singers' conductor" and for 10 years he was a favourite of Maria Callas, with whom he worked in Chicago and in Europe, as well as at Dallas. However, he was no prima donnas' slave and always put the composer first.

Rescigno was an Italian-American, born in New York in 1916. His father was a trumpet player in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, but Nicola studied law in Rome before becoming a musician. After studying with Ildebrando Pizzetti, Vittorio Giannini and Giorgio Polacco, he made his début in 1943 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music conducting Verdi's La traviata. He toured the United States with the San Carlo Opera Company, and became music director of the Connecticut and Havana Operas.

In 1954, together with Carol Fox and Lawrence Kelly, he founded the Chicago Lyric Opera: Rescigno was artistic director, Kelly the managing director and Fox the president and general manager. After two "calling card" performances of Mozart's Don Giovanni in February, Lyric Opera opened on 1 November with Callas in Bellini's Norma.

During that first season Rescigno also conducted Giannini's The Taming of the Shrew and two more Callas performances, La traviata and Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. The second season, in 1955, was even more impressive: Callas sang Puccini's Madama Butterfly, Elvira in Bellini's I puritani and Leonora in Verdi's Il trovatore with Jussi Björling as Manrico; Tito Gobbi sang Renato in Verdi's Un ballo in maschera. After a power struggle with Carol Fox, at the end of the second season both Kelly and Rescigno resigned.

Their next venture was the founding of Dallas Civic Opera; the inaugural season, a Callas concert, and Giulietta Simionato as Isabella in Rossini's L'italiana in Algeri, took place in autumn 1957.

The following June, Rescigno made his British début, at Covent Garden, conducting La traviata with Callas as Violetta. Back in Dallas, he conducted Cherubini's Medea with Callas in the title role and Jon Vickers as Jason. She sang Medea in 1959 at Covent Garden and at the Ancient Greek Theatre at Epidaurus in 1961, always with Vickers as Jason and Rescigno conducting.

After a concert performance of Bellini's Il pirata with Callas as Imogene at Carnegie Hall, New York in 1959, Rescigno conducted her in Lucia di Lammermoor at Dallas that year. His final collaboration with Callas was Tosca at the Paris Opera in 1965.

Rescigno conducted a new staging of Handel's Alcina by Franco Zeffirelli at La Fenice, Venice, in 1960 with Joan Sutherland. This was a tremendous success and was later transferred to Dallas. That season he also conducted Don Giovanni with Sutherland as Donna Anna and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf as Donna Elvira. The 1961 season included Sutherland in Lucia di Lammermoor, with an unknown 19-year-old tenor, Plácido Domingo, singing Arturo.

Though he conducted in Naples, Mexico City, Lisbon and various American cities in the next decade, Rescigno devoted most of his energies to Dallas. The Civil Opera – later known simply as Dallas Opera – had gained an enviable reputation for its high musical standards and for the interesting European singers it introduced to the United States. In 1963, there was the first professional performance in the US of Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea, in an edition by Giorgio Ghedini and Rescigno. A new production of Il ballo in maschera, with Giuseppe Di Stefano as Riccardo, which was due to open that year on 22 November, had to be postponed because of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Dallas celebrated its 10th anniversary in 1966. Rescigno conducted Verdi's Macbeth, with Gwyneth Jones making her US début as Lady Macbeth. The following year there was a revival of Medea, with Magda Olivero also making her début in America. Rescigno and Olivero did Medea again together at Kansas City in 1968 and at Mantua in 1971, as well as Giordano's Fedora at Dallas. Other notable Dallas performances included Jon Vickers and Victoria de los Angeles as Otello and Desdemona (1968), while Vickers also sang Canio in Pagliacci (1972) and the title role of Giordano's Andrea Chénier in 1973.

That year's programme included Rimsky-Korsakov's The Golden Cockerel and Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro. In 1974, Lawrence Kelly died and Rescigno was appointed general manager as well as artistic director. That autumn, he returned to Chicago to conduct Donizetti's La Favorite. In Dallas there was more Donizetti, Lucrezia Borgia, with Leyla Gencer and José Carreras, and Tosca with Olivero, the last time she sang with Rescigno.

His extra administrative duties at Dallas forced Rescigno to cancel Tristan und Isolde, which he had hoped to conduct in 1975, but he managed Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann, with Alfredo Kraus singing his first Hoffmann, and Anna Bolena, with Renata Scotto singing her first Bolena. He replaced Hoffmann with Domingo in Chicago in 1976 and then conducted a superb performance of Handel's Samson with Vickers at Dallas. In 1977, Plato Karayanis was appointed manager of the Civic Opera, freeing Rescigno to conduct Massenet's Werther with Kraus at the San Carlo, Naples and Rossini's Tancredi with Marilyn Horne at Houston. Horne was the star of the 1977 Dallas season, singing her first Romeo in Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi.

In 1978, Rescigno made his Glyndebourne début, conducting La bohème; directed by John Cox, this was, according to Rodney Milnes, "a tough, almost black piece of social realism"; and he made his début at the Metropolitan conducting Donizetti's Don Pasquale. Rescigno's Met career was not extensive; he returned in 1981 for L'italiana in Algeri with Horne and L'elisir d'amore, with Luciano Pavarotti as Nemorino. At Dallas in 1979 he conducted Puccini's Manon Lescaut with Scotto, and a superb performance of Bizet's Les pêcheurs de perles.

The Dallas Silver Jubilee season in 1981 starred Kraus, singing his first Romeo in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette. Rescigno scored a great success in 1983 at Barcelona with Verdi's Macbeth and La forza del destino, repeating the latter opera at Dallas to even greater acclaim in the autumn. Visiting San Francisco for the first time, he conducted La sonnambula, with Frederica von Stade as an ideal Amina. An addition to his Dallas repertory was Verdi's Don Carlo, which he conducted with particular insight and strength in 1988. The same year, Rescigno conducted the world premiere of Dominick Argento's The Aspern Papers, based on the Henry James novella, with Elisabeth Söderström in the cast.

After conducting Aida in the Baths of Caracalla at Rome in 1989, Rescigno returned to Dallas, where just before Christmas he announced his resignation, in January 1990, from the post of artistic director, because of "prolonged and continual disagreements" with the manager, Plato Karayanis. He conducted Werther with the ever-youthful Alfredo Kraus at the Rome Opera, then Aida at the Baths of Caracalla again, before retiring to Rignano Flaminio, a village near Rome.

Elizabeth Forbes

Nicola Rescigno, conductor and opera administrator: born New York 28 May 1916; died Viterbo, Italy 4 August 2008.